Sunday, February 18, 2007

Gladiators in Chester - apparently really

Alun Salt points his readers at this page from the BBC's website, reporting a conference this weekend that has happened in Chester. To someone who has studied Roman Britain, it seems a quite bizarrely written item. Take the second paragraph:

Experts have unearthed evidence in the remains of Chester Amphitheatre which suggests gladiators appeared there.

Well, yes, of course gladiators appeared in the amphitheatre. That's what happened in amphitheatres. Why should anyone ever think differently?

The next paragraph sheds a little more light - "It was previously thought the arena was only used for ceremonial activities" - but in fact you need to go to other reports to find that what this refers to is the notion that amphitheatres in Britain were only used for military parades and training.

Personally, I've never bought that. The only argument in favour seems to be that amphitheatres in Britain, such as those at Caerleon, Chester, and London, are often associated with forts or fortresses. But for a start, at least one isn't (Silchester). And in any case, an association with a fort doesn't prove that gladiatorial games didn't take place there. If you found a football field in a modern army base, you wouldn't conclude that, because of the military association, no-one actually played football there. I'm more than happy to accept that ceremonial events and military activities did take place in amphitheatres in Britain (after all, modern football stadia are used for activities other than football matches, such as pop concerts), or even that the Roman army paid for those sited next to forts. But I have never seen a convincing argument that these buildings were not used for the same purposes for which amphitheatres around the empire were built.

I wonder, as well, if there isn't a bit of cultural snobbery behind the military theory. It used to be suggested that the Greeks in the East weren't interested in gladiatorial games, because they didn't in general build amphitheatres - the subtext being that the culturally educated Greeks were above such vulgar Roman entertainments. The problem is, they weren't - what happened was that instead of building new specialist amphitheatres, already existing theatres and stadia were converted for gladiators. So I wonder whether in the past, British archaeologists wanted to think that ancient Britons, our noble ancestors, would have no interest in the spectacle of men killing each other. But it's now clear that the Britons loved it as much as anyone else in the empire, and I for one have never believed otherwise.


Eigon said...

As far as I understand it, the gladiators didn't always kill each other. Gladiators were expensive to train, and it took a long time. Medical facilities were on hand for the wounded gladiators, too.
So there was always the danger of death that there will always be when fighting with sharp, edged weapons, which doubtless added to the excitement of the crowd, but it didn't always happen.

Alex Bordessa said...

In 1979 I volunteered to do some digging at Chester. One rainy day, when it was too hazardous to dig, the Director decided to take us on a tour of Roman Chester. It included the amphitheatre, but he did indeed say he thought it might be used for military training ... Love the way archaeologists get called 'experts.' Don't call them that, it only makes them worse ;-)

And where the heck is York's amphitheatre?! Not found it yet, but 'the experts' have their ideas. If London has one, there better be one around here somewhere.

Verulamium has a theatre, though I did read somewhere that it may also have been used for gladiatorial games. I'd be surprised it it wasn't.

For my period of interest (5th-6th century Britain) amphitheatres had a variety of uses, from rubbish dumps to makeshift fortresses. Sad really.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Looks like German archaeologists don't have that sort of problem. The arena in Trier is presented as a place for gladiator combats, and the special guided tours are even done by a guy dressed up as gladiator.

I mean, the lift for animal cages and other features they found under the arena are a bit difficult to explain if the place was only used for parades. ;)